Mother of BU professor who fell to his death through a dilapidated metal staircase urges lawmakers to create new T oversight agency
The mother of a Boston University professor who died when he fell from a deteriorating state-owned stairway offered an impassioned call for lawmakers to establish a new, independent agency that would oversee safety at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
Debra Bingham, whose 40-year-old son, David K. Jones died while climbing the stairs by Dorchester's JFK/UMass Station on Sept. 11, 2021, implored state legislators to take immediate action on current proposals that would create a new office.
"We — all [of us] in Massachusetts — need you to do this," Bingham said. "Lives depend on each one of you."
Bingham told lawmakers she offered her testimony "only because I hope that David did not die in vain."
"I hope that no other family has to undergo the pain that our family is going through," she said. "Every day, many times a day, I cry . . . because of the pain, because of the preventable death of my son."
The Legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation is considering two separate bills that would create an independent agency to oversee safety at the MBTA, and on Monday afternoon, heard testimony from Bingham, as well as transportation advocates and fellow lawmakers at the State House.
The bills would transfer safety supervision from the Department of Public Utilities, which has been faulted by federal officials for not providing sufficient oversight of the T.
The bills come as the MBTA has faced withering criticism for a series of safety failures in recent years. Those included the deaths of Jones and of Red Line rider Robinson Lalin, who was dragged to death by a train in 2022; a fire on the Orange Line that same year; and a Green Line train collision that injured more than two dozen people in 2021.
More recently, the Federal Transit Administration has warned this spring the T there is "substantial risk" of a death or injury among employees along its tracks as crews try to grapple with a backlog of maintenance issues.
Last summer, the FTA released a blistering report that faulted the T for failing to maintain safeguards.
Governor Maura Healey, who took office in January, appointed a new T general manager, Phillip Eng, this spring. Eng has pledged to fix the T's safety and services, which have been plagued by widespread subway delays.
One bill would establish an transportation safety oversight and regulation commission that would create and maintain statewide safety standards, investigate possible noncompliance when it occurs and implement corrective action plans, and conduct an audit of MBTA compliance every few years.
The committee would also be required to release an annual safety and operations report and to publish all accident reports to its website.
The other bill, authored by Representative William Straus, who serves as a transportation committee cochair, proposes transferring that oversight role to the state Inspector General's office, or "another suitable entity," according to the bill's text.
The MBTA and the DPU each declined comment on the legislation.
In Massachusetts, the designated agency that oversees rapid transit safety is the DPU, and is supposed to conduct safety audits in consultation with the FTA. Federal officials have criticized the DPU for not using its authority to find and resolve the T's safety issues.
The DPU also oversees investor-owned electric power, natural gas, and water utilities, plus regulates the safety of gas pipelines, as well as bus companies and movers, according to the agency's website. It has been stretched thin by its growing climate burden, said state Senator Michael Barrett, who authored the Senate bill and chairs the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, which oversees the DPU.
"We’re rescuing transportation oversight from an agency whose mission has evolved enormously," he said in an interview.
Inspector General Jeffrey Shapiro, in his testimony Monday, supported the creation of an independent state safety oversight agency that would be responsible for safety solely at the MBTA that would be separate from his office.
Shapiro proposed a safety agency that would have two divisions — one focused on the T's subway lines, and a second for its commuter rail, its bus and boat services, as well as regional transit authorities across the state.
The family of Jones filed a lawsuit late last year against state transportation officials, arguing his death was avoidable, and was caused by the "carelessness, recklessness and negligence" of the MBTA.
The suit, brought by Sarah Sacuto, Jones's wife, also names the Massachusetts Department of Transportation as a defendant.
The stairway that Jones fell from had been left to rust for months, and was missing several steps before Jones died, photographs of the structure have shown.
It was finally demolished just days after his death.
Kent Hamilton, Jones's stepfather, told lawmakers Monday: "David's death is a great loss . . . to us personally, but also to society overall. He was a great man."
In a January letter to the editor published in The Boston Globe, Bingham urged Healey to fix the MBTA, calling Jones’ death preventable. In the months since, she said, Bingham has met with state lawmakers and regulators, pushing for change within the agency.
As Bingham and Hamilton left the hearing room Monday afternoon, they reiterated their support for a new safety authority to oversee the T. Bingham's thoughts also turned back to her son.
"That is the only thing that brought me here today: it's to do something that could possibly save other families this pain," Bingham said. "At least this feels like, in his name, I can help bring about some good."
Emily Sweeney of the Globe staff contributed to this report.